15 January 2009

One big council - one big bureaucracy

Governance in Auckland has been seen as a problem by many, mostly councils and central government, for some time. Mainly by those who think councils should be doing certain things, rather than considering whether such things should be done at all, and if so, by whom. I've not seen a major problem. Transport is often cited as an issue, but in the last few years umpteen major motorway improvements have progressed in Auckland (I can think of eight) and the major hold up has been the ridiculously expensive boondoggle called rail. Just because neither users nor ratepayers are willing to pay for this, doesn't mean there is a problem in governance - it is a problem with the idea.

So the report in the NZ Herald today of what the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance will recommend should send shivers up the spines of Auckland ratepayers - and by that I mean ratepayers of any one of the seven Auckland territorial local authorities. One big council, without restricting what it should do, will be a behemoth of a bureaucracy looking for a job. On top of that a Mayor, with powers to dictate, should also scare Aucklanders - as such Mayors will look for totem poles to build, at the expense of everyone else.

A libertarian view of local government would be that it is hardly needed at all. After all, as long as private property rights are well defined (which at present they are not), then planning becomes simply the delineation between those rights (which could include airspace, sight lines and factors for air and noise). Most of what else local government does is to meddle in utilities or supply facilities that could be provided privately, assuming that local government didn't pilfer money from everyone to pay for them.

So what is really needed in Auckland is not the creation of a mega council, but a serious debate about what the role of local government should be.

Labour, with the Alliance (before it divorced Jim Anderton) and the Greens changed this radically with the Local Government Act 2002, by repealing rather unwieldy legislation that defined what local government was allowed to do, and granting a "power of general competence" (yes the joke from that phrase is too obvious). This effectively gave councils the power to build, buy, sell or engage in any activity that a natural person could do. Councils could set up schools, restaurants, trucking firms, radio stations, dry cleaners, banks or service stations, as long as they went through due processes of consultation. This was a view that local government could effectively be a mini-version of central government, although Labour resisted granting local authorities new taxation or regulatory powers.

National and ACT voted against this legislation, quite rightly so. It is time to take a different approach.

Look at what councils do that could simply be privatised, whether by sale or by transferring to trusts run by interested people. All commercial activities could clearly be sold, or shares transferred to ratepayers. Non commercial activities, like recreational centres, pools, libraries and parks could be transferred to interested parties to run, accept sponsorship, donations or charge for usage. The regulatory activities of councils could then be reviewed on a case by case basis, to consider how private property rights could be used to address the relevant issues.

In short, there is a grand opportunity to rethink local government, so that it shrinks considerably in the next three years. The more difficult examples, like local streets and footpaths may be last on the list, but in the meantime rates should be capped - permanently at current nominal levels, to force councils to trim, and if need be, merge. In other words, the scope for local government to be perpetual busybodies would decline over time, freeing up ratepayers funds, land and the public to decide whether what is done "for the public good" is actually what they are prepared to pay for. Commercial property owners in areas for "regeneration" may foot the bill for upgrading the street scape, instead of expecting all ratepayers to chip in.

The grand council idea is a recipe for local government to do more, much much more. I believe Owen McShane once wrote that the ideal size of a council was one that served between 10,000 and 40,000 people - not so small that it couldn't have enough capacity to carry out its functions, but not so big that it could charge ratepayers enough surplus to dabble in new areas of activity.

The appropriate response of the new government to this forthcoming report is thanks, but no thanks - there needs to be a more fundamental review of the role of local government. Local government has resisted year in year out the drive for lower taxes, and rode on the back of property price increases to increase rates beyond inflation. It is time to say no to a big Auckland council, and consider instead something else as a first step. Why does Auckland need two layers of local government?

Oh and if you think I'm wrong, note this part of the report "the commission will almost certainly recommend the mayor and new council become more involved in the social needs of the region, such as affordable housing".

Get it? You vote out a leftwing central government and you can watch one get elected locally - and you know who will be forced to pay for it.

I can only hope the Minister for Local Government can see this for what it is - a report commissioned by the last government which should be destined as a door stop.


Lindsay Mitchell said...

Just wondering however about the duplication of roles, processes and services. I would have thought that in the Wellington region, for instance, we have too many councils, regional and local.

An opinion piece in yesterday's Herald also springs to mind;

"The differences between council processes can be vastly different. I've worked with one council which had a town planner authorised to make decisions. Another council only allowed a committee to make decisions while a third used big city consultants who made recommendations to a committee.

The town planner could give you a straight answer, the second council's staff shied away from giving any answers, and the consultants for the third council would be the ones asking superfluous questions.

The result of such disparity in accountability by the three councils is inconsistency of decision-making, a lack of transparency and increased risks. Time, cost and quality are the victims."

Isn't there a case to find the best performer and streamline?

BTW have you driven through Levin any time lately? They have a massive, new, state-of-the-art council building. Makes me feel ill. (Although I did see an official from therein recently stating that the council would not be banning the use of vehicles on beaches.)

Libertyscott said...

Well you'd need another bureaucracy to figure out who was best - some are good at some things, some others. I know Wellington councils well enough to have some time for Wellington, none for Porirua, and limited regard for the Hutt councils. WRC is a mixed bag altogether, and the Wairarapa councils are run on a shoestring, and know it.

I avoided Levin :) only time I drive that way now is between Welly and Hawke's Bay, and SH57 is a delightful bypass :)

Anonymous said...

NZ is only 4 fucking million people. Why do we need "local government" at all? We don't.

There is nothing that local government does that cannot be managed better by private enterprise

Footpaths? They're only for losers and bludgers.
If people want fucking footpaths they can join the fucking footpath charity.

Why do we need any "town planners" at all. We have courts. It's my land, and I'll do what I want on it. Thank you very much. The sooner the rail system gets cut up for scrap; the sooner we stop pissing about with uneconomic busses and get rid of "social" housing (which just encourages more bludgers)

the better NZ will be

Anonymous said...

To see what a mega-council can do just look at how well Brisbane works.
The problem with Auckland and always has been the plethora of councils. This has been a problem for soooo long, getting people to vote themselves out of a job has proven to be very difficult.
I can't understand why you want to drag rail into it? The ARTA has only been dragging the NZ Government into playing "catch-ups". Now we've got a real world city and soon with electrification we'll have real trains thank christ.
The main problem being with rail in Auckland is that it doesn't serve enough of the catchment. I've done a little research into this prior to posting. Apparently the reason for this is the land for the lines was set aside - guess who sold it?